Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bernice Rubens - The Elected Member

Well, folks, this one has everything you could ever want out of a Booker winner: dysfunctional families, cultural identity (Jewish), drug addiction, hints of both brother-sister incest and homosexuality, and death. That's damn impressive. And it was only the second book to win the prize -- clearly it Set The Tone for the decades to come.

(Disclosure time: so much time has passed since I created this blog post and wrote the above paragraph that my opinions & memories of this book, never too strong in the first place, have dwindled away somewhat.)

The Elected Member is about Norman Zweck, his sister Bella, and his father Rabbi Zweck. Nominally the narration is Norman's, centering on his drug addiction and the psychotic delusions resulting from his withdrawal, but it gradually expands to envelop the entire family and their own histories, secret struggles, and resentments. It's not a fun book at all, but it's very well done.

Given my own interests and background, what I found the most impressive was the way Rubens portrayed mental illness from the inside out, showing the dreadful, chilling pathos of delusion: the way irrational beliefs can be held by otherwise intelligent people, the ways in which they cling unshakably to the results of their own brain chemistry, they ways in which they rationalise and rebuild reality so that it fits in with what they know to be irrevocably true. She shows the inevitable anger that develops against anyone trying to deny that reality, and the helplessness of anyone on the outside, seeing the psychosis for what it is but unable to break through. This portrait of drug addiction and delusion alone makes the book worth reading.

The title of the book relates to the family context of this individual tragedy; the metaphor is that Norman's condition makes him the single member of the family who has been 'elected' to be both scapegoat and victim as a result of the family's collective history, the events that led to Rabbi Zweck's unhappiness and Bella's bitter loneliness and their estrangement from Norman's eldest sister. Their guilt dictates how they react to Norman's condition and use it to streamline and reflect their own suffering:
They could not bear to make him miserable, though if she were honest, it was her own pain and her father's that was unsupportable. And so they had both entered Norman's derangement, making it workable, tidying it even, making it all 'nice'. They were both equally guilty. She knew in her heart, it was better for strangers to look after him. Her answer over the years to Norman's sickness had been that he was doing it on purpose to drive them all crazy. She had to be angry with him. It was the surest hold on her own sanity. If a mind wavered, it was best to keep the kin at bay.
As often happens with these depressing, clever, well-crafted books that end up on the Booker list, I was slow to get into it, engrossed while reading it, thoughtful for a day afterwards, and then more or less shook off my memory of the emotions it inspired within me. I can't say I loved it, I can't say I'd press it into the hands of anyone looking for recommendations, but I'm glad it was on my list.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sebastian Faulks - A Week in December

This book was everywhere in the London shops when I was there in January of this year. I suspect the publishers cannily released it in the lead-up to Christmas; understandable, since it is set in London during that particular part of the year. I was drawn to it at the time because of the cover design (I am easy as hell for explicitly London-y fiction) but I was too busy devouring Faulks's earlier novel Birdsong to actually bother with buying it.

A Week in December uses the simple conceit of following a group of varied people with loosely interconnected lives, switching rapidly between them and showing us what their preoccupations and distractions are in this single week. It's simple, yes, but Faulks pulls it off very well by not over-stuffing the novel with people (although the cast is large, it's never hard to keep track of people once you're a few chapters in) and by also introducing a few key events that are scheduled for the end of the week, thereby creating both a structure and an impetus for the story, without which it would likely have been entertaining but lacking in a sense of solid narrative.

By and large the variety of characters is satisfying; although it's not at all a cross-section of class (the predominance of very rich people is at least lampshaded) there's a huge mixture of personalities and likeabilities and opinions. As a result, the book leaps around somewhat in tone. It runs all the way down the spectrum from direct satire of popular culture reminiscent of Ben Elton's sharp black humour (covering reality TV, online second lives, and modern art), via the near-caricature of RT, the failed novelist and spiteful book reviewer, all the way to the measured portrayal of Islamic fundamentalism. I'm not sure where the plotline of John Veals the hedge fund manager and his deal of a lifetime belongs on this spectrum, because I don't know enough about the area to understand the twists and layers of what happens beyond the pointed commentary about who ends up bearing the cost of fiscal irresponsibility in banks. However, I have a strong suspicion that this failure to distinguish between serious depiction and absurdism is exactly the point that Faulks is trying to make about the world of finance.

Like so many of the things I love, it's also a book about books! Most explicitly there's RT, who has seemingly lost the inability to find anything worthwhile in literature, so focused is he on exposing the failings of the authors behind the words; indeed, the act of me writing a review of A Week in December feels almost like a meta endeavour. There's also the OBE recipient nervously learning and reciting potted criticism of books in case the Queen wants to discuss them with him; and finally there are the ways in which books enrich the lives of people who otherwise don't feel that they have much in the way of colour or happiness:

'People never explain to you exactly what they think and feel and how their thoughts and feelings work, do they? They don't have time. Or the right words. But that's what books do. It's as though your daily life is a film in the cinema. It can be fun, looking at those pictures. But if you want to know what lies behind the flat screen you have to read a book. That explains it all.'

Indeed. And books like this are why I tend to leap at things that fall under the banner of Literary Fiction even though that genre (if indeed it can be called one) includes authors like Banville and McEwan whose books I find tiresome. This one is about families, and religion, and mental health, and relationships, and city life -- all those good things that never get stale as long as the characters themselves are fresh -- delivered in a prose that feels effortless and incisive without ever tipping into purpleism or choppiness. It's probably not for everyone, but I loved it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Jean Plaidy - Daughter of Satan

This book was loaned to me by one of my best friends as good trashy historical fun, which is not exactly my genre, but I will read basically anything if it is gifted or lent to me.

(I thought this cover was trashy enough, what with it depicting the protagonist's sexual assualt, but when Googling to find a picture of it I discovered this cover of an alternate edition and now I see that no, it could have been MUCH TRASHIER and ten times more hilarious.)

Daughter of Satan is about Tamar, a proud young woman who grows up in seventeenth-century England believing that she is the result of a union between her mother and the devil. She is accused of witchcraft, is Torn Between Two Men (of course) and eventually lands herself in the New World in search of a better life.

I --

I'm sorry, Tink, darling.

I hated this book.

To be fair, I didn't hate it for the first third or so. I enjoyed the prose. I was intrigued by Tamar the child, growing up conscious of the ways in which people fear her, deluding herself into pride and power. I liked the expert depiction of the ways in which the society's tensions and preoccupations on the personal level descended directly from the prevailing political climate and the supremacy of religion as a point of disagreement and a means through which to wield power. As a well-written, well-researched portrait of a historical period through the eyes of its inhabitants, this book succeeds.

As a story, as a story about characters, it doesn't. At least, certainly not for me.

From her promising beginning, Tamar degenerates into inconsistency. Sure, people are allowed to be more than one thing, and to change, but I never felt that her character cohered into anything for long enough that I could gain a basic understanding of what made her tick beyond her vanity and her stubborn need to cling to the sense of Darkness and Specialness that made her a hellish but entertaining child. When these are the only things presented to you as the protagonist's consistent motivating factors, it's hard to connect with her, or even care much about what happens to her.

But the real problem with this book is that it is trying to be a historical romance, and I detested both of the love interests with a fiery, fiery passion. I think the fact that Tamar's life in the latter two thirds of the book is primarily about her mixed feelings regarding the two men -- Bartle Cavill the bullying asshole pirate slash country squire, and Humilty Brown the staunchly idealistic Puritan minister -- is what prevents Tamar herself from remaining the kind of protagonist I like. She wavers. She obssesses. She contradicts herself. She self-sabotages. She's religious. She's not religious. She's petty and fearful and cruel. I want to punch her repeatedly in the face.

Humility is well-realised as a character, and a good vehicle for exploring what it meant to be a Puritan in England at such a time, but he's a hypocrite and a whiner and seriously lacks the depth that one finds in, say, Jane Eyre's St John Rivers (a very comparable character); plus, he's just plain irritating. Bartle is worse, though: he's vicious and he's abusive. He sexually assaults Tamar when she's fourteen, and when she's older he blackmails her into sleeping with him twice. She rebuffs him over and over and over again. He smirks. He claims that she was asking for it. She says that she would rather be tortured and hanged as a witch than sleep with him. He claims that she wanted to sleep with him all along and really she was happy that he came up with an excuse like his horrible blackmailing trickery. This, this ghasty rapist and rape-apologist, is his whole character. Even later in the book when Tamar no longer hates him outright he continues to threaten her, manipulate events in order to be close to her, mistreat her, and warn her that he will take what he wants if she doesn't give it up willingly.

Which would be all right, I suppose -- albeit painful to read -- if it were making a point about misogynist bastards and the prevailing culture of the time and how much it really, seriously sucked to be a woman. But no. The thing is: Tamar buys into it. She comes to realise that yes! She secretly did want him to sexually assault her! She misses him horribly when he is not there! Maybe she does love him!

This was the point at which I had to actively refrain from throwing the book to the floor.

To make this stupidity even worse, there is no believable reason given for Tamar's feelings, ever. The sex scenes are never shown and barely even referred to; it's hard to believe that Tamar enjoyed it, even unwillingly, when all we get are her thoughts about how ashamed she is and how much she hates Bartle -- and then, later, when it's narratively convenient, this about-face. It's trying to be the age-old and dubious story of hatred and conflict being a stand-in for excitement and compatability, and it just doesn't work.

The choice Tamar is given is not the choice between two men that she is genuinely attracted to for very different reasons. The choice is between being wanted solely for her spiritedness and her attractiveness as a sexual object, and being wanted because she apparently needs someone to keep an eye on her wicked soul and also she could produce some much-needed Puritan babies.

So. I can't in good conscience recommend this book unless you are looking to incite some fine, healthy feminist fury in yourself, while incidentally reading the bare skeleton of a rather good historical novel that is struggling to exist behind all the shitty 'romance'.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - Heat and Dust

There will be a sudden proliferation of reviews of Booker Prize winners on this blog, because I don't have many weeks left in my current town and I'm trying to get through all of those on my list that I know the local library has.

I'm fairly sure there's a whole subgenre of books that follow two narratives: one of them set in the past, and recorded in someone's diaries or letters, and one of them set in the present and featuring someone reading this record and also having parallel experiences in their own life. A.S. Byatt's Possession, another Booker Prize winner, is a book of that sort. Heat and Dust follows Olivia, the wife of an English civil servant in 1920s India, and her great-niece, who is inspired by the scandalous story of Olivia's life to visit India herself in the 1970s.

Nothing about the overall structure of the book was particularly compelling for me; everything was fairly predictable, the pacing was fine, and it was a good (short) length. I didn't love it, in short. But I'm interested in the British Raj period, and especially the tail-end of colonialism in the twentieth century, and I think as a frank portrait of India through the eyes of an European person, in both that time period and the more modern one, the book definitely succeeded and held my interest. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a German-born English writer who -- like both of her protagonists -- fell in love with an Indian man and lived there for a while, and the book doesn't read like it's trying to show India as it is to Indian people, but instead sticks with the more authentic (although hardly original) portrait of an outsider's personal reaction to the country.

It probably says a lot that as I write this, only a week and spare change after reading the book, I'm struggling to think of specific details to put forth as examples. I didn't care overmuch for any of the characters, and there wasn't quite enough emotional engagement with either of the protagonists for me to connect with them. But I do know that the book contained a lot of little things that I enjoyed, little observations of inner life, little scenes that were described vividly, little incidences and incidental characters that made me smile.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Kingsley Amis - The Old Devils

Kingsley Amis is one of those authors whose names I'm aware of, but about whose books I know nothing at all. Plus I have a tendency to mix him up with his son Martin, who falls into the same category. My preconceptions here were minimal.

Well, that's not entirely true. Having read the dust jacket blurb, I was fairly sure that The Old Devils would fall into what I think of -- rather depressingly -- as the Booker Prize Pattern: middle aged white people contemplate their mortality. (The secondary Pattern: coming-of-age in a poor country.) And to a large extent it does. The book follows a group of elderly friends from a Welsh town, and how their relationships and everyday routines are changed when two of them move back to the town after living in England. It doesn't sound like my sort of book, and I did initially find it very difficult to get into, but once I'd been introduced to all the characters and become accustomed to the style of story-telling, I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.

In large part this was because of how carefully and unflinchingly each person was written -- each one the sum of their flaws, and the more painful parts of their history. I didn't like most of them much, and often that spoils a book for me, but here it just filled me with admiration at the understanding of human nature and the well-tuned ear for prose that created these characters. The self-important, self-deprecating, utterly self-centred poet Alan was particularly delightful to read about, because Amis's structuring of the book to switch between everyone's points of view allowed you to see him as others did, and so to laugh at him when he was being most unlikable in his own voice. I always admire it when writers can use multiple-character perspectives to provide this kind of depth of character portrayal, and Amis does it very well.

The most interesting aspect of reading the book, for me, was not a property of the book itself, but rather a fact arising from the particular context of me reading it. The characters are older than the protagonists of most books I read, and convincingly old, and it's incredible how alien I found their fixations and internal narratives, from the perspective of my own 24 years. Before starting the book I'd found a mention of it in a sort of enjoyable lazy non-fiction memoir-of-a-life-in-books by Susan Hill, Howard's End is on the Landing. Hill said of The Old Devils that it was a way for Amis to talk about and confront his greatest fears, and holding that idea in my mind was a way in which I got more out of the book than I otherwise would have. Because, let's face it, I don't have it in me to viscerally recognise the fears of advancing age; the doublethink required to fixate on and repress frightening bodily symptoms; the greyness of perusing history and knowing it to be too late to change anything important; the mess and pointlessness of a routine entrenched in bitterness, or alcoholism, or resignation. I can read them and let them create a picture -- a good one -- in my mind. I can feel the fear, a tinge of it, on the pages. But it's not my fear and so it's not my story.

The book also has a lot to say about Wales and Welshness, and I was left again with the impression that for a lot of people the book would have sparked smiles at injokes, and feelings of recognition. As an outsider I wasn't left with a particular sense of what makes Welsh people Welsh (except for, it seems, truly epic amounts of alcohol consumption); if that was something Amis was trying to accomplish, then it failed for me, but I didn't get the impression that he was trying. I just don't think this book was written, at all, for people like me. Reading it was like reading a work in another language when one has a very serviceable grasp of the grammar and the vocabulary, but lacks the deep understanding of syntax and idiom and context that a native speaker might possess. Maybe I wouldn't need to be Welsh for this book to speak to me on more than a rational level. Maybe I'd just need to be closer to the fear.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ray Bradbury - The October Country

My newfound love for Bradbury close at hand, I skimmed the library shelf and decided on this collection of short stories, largely because, well, it was a small paperback. (I have no car, and it's a twenty minute walk to and from the library; my book choices are highly influenced by my ability to lug them back home again.) I'd also heard that out of all the mediums in which he's written, Bradbury is best at the short story.

I've read some of Bradbury's essays and musings on his own writing history and writing methods, so I know that he had a habit of making lists of words that sounded good, sounded like they could have stories in them, and then plucking one out and working at it until he'd found the story. The list of titles in this collection reflect that: 'The Crowd', 'The Scythe', 'The Lake', 'The Jar', and so on.

Horror isn't a genre that I've read much of at all, and I'm not sure to what extent Bradbury's stories count as horror; I read somewhere that one can lump him in with Stephen King in a genre of 'American weird', which I think is a pretty apt description. Not all of the stories are frightening, or more than mildly horrific. But they're definitely unsettling; definitely weird.

He does seem fond of the age-old device of one person being convinced of the danger inherent in a seemingly innocuous thing, and the disaster that results when nobody around them will take their conviction seriously. It's a trope that can be tiresome when handled badly, but I was impressed with how effectively Bradbury recycled it in new, creepy, engaging ways. The trope is most blatant in what I think are two of the most seriously disturbing stories in the collection, 'The Small Assassin' (which could almost be read as an allegory for postnatal depression) and 'The Wind', a really quite beautiful story with a creative concept at the heart of it, making it enjoyable and gripping even though it develops in a very predictable manner.

As well as the outright weirdness, the collection also contains some stories with an almost whimsical feel to them (Jack-in-the-Box, Uncle Einar) and those that are quite specifically about familiar emotion translated into a fantastical setting; the quiet despair of the protagonist in 'Homecoming', being surrounded by his supernatural family and hating his normality and inbility to be what is expected of him, shows that Bradbury's creativity is not limited to the simple act of dark invention.

Something that struck me in particular, reading as I did all nineteen stories in a fairly short space of time, is Bradbury's focus on the horror of the body. This is most obvious in 'The Next in Line', what I thought was the standout story in terms of how utterly creeped out it made me feel; after a woman pays a reluctant tourist visit to some mummies arranged in a catacomb in Mexico, she is overwhelmed with fear that she will die and join them. The careful, meticulous, horrible descriptions of the way she deteriorates -- almost entirely done in terms of bodily sensation and paranoid thought rather than emotion -- is masterful, and very upsetting. 'Skeleton', 'The Man Upstairs' and 'The Dwarf' are also body stories, in which one's own body can be traitor or alien or hated. It's a visceral and ancient kind of horror. It works.

'There Was An Old Woman' is another body-focused one, but instead of the body being the primary source trouble, it's something to be treasured and clung to. I loved this tale of a cranky old woman whose stubbornness in the face of death is both hilarious and, in an odd way, inspiring; it was a wonderful little celebration of humanity's ability to rage, rage against the dying of the light -- and a breath of fresh air in such a dark collection.

I think I need a break before my next Bradbury book; much as I enjoy his writing style and his imagination, the occasional brief and delicious immersion is enough.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Karen Healey - Guardian of the Dead

This is only the second book I've read dealing with the mythology of New Zealand, the first being Keri Hulme's The Bone People, a Booker-Prize-winning fucking marvel of a novel that's somewhat like being kicked slowly in the chest. Guardian of the Dead is much more of an outright dark-fantasy novel, and the mythology -- and the idea of mythology -- plays a much larger part in the story.

(Tangentally, I'll say right off the bat that this is one of my favourite book covers ever. You don't realise how clever it is until you've actually read the book, but even at first glance it's gorgeous and creepy and sucks you in.)

Guardian of the Dead follows Ellie, who like most protagonists of urban fantasy is coping reasonably well with her life (at her boarding school on New Zealand's south island) until, well, weird shit starts happening. The story deals with magical beings, magical powers, and -- of course -- a quest to save the world, or at least a particular corner of it. Not knowing much at all about Maori mythology I can't say how much licence has been taken, but it comes across as self-contained and fascinating and has certainly made me curious to learn more. I was surprised and impressed at how far into horror the imagery strayed, too, wrapping the reader up in creepiness until you don't feel at all safe, and that makes the story itself more unpredictable, because hell, anything could happen now. This is contributed to by the fact that it has exactly the right tone to it, the feel of myth, where every action holds meaning and things like sacrifice and lies and family and courage become all-important.

The characters are sketched well, though I must admit that the love interest held no particular appeal for me. I was completely sold on the fact that Ellie liked him, and that he liked her, no problems there, but something in his personality was too flat for me to get on board entirely with his presence in the story. But I loved most of the very teenaged teenagers and the way they interacted, and the various magic-makers and figures of power, and how Healey shows that even when strange new fantastical things are happening, the motivations and niggling details of everyday life are still worth thinking about.

This book is a prime example of what I think of as the Social Justice YA Movement: it spins a great tale with a likable protagonist, but it also addresses asexuality, fatphobia, sexism and rape culture. Which is fantastic! The more books that show fat girls kicking ass, and asexual boys refusing to compromise their identity, and people judging and making mistakes and rethinking -- the better. Ellie's self-consciousness and automatic comparison of herself to others is almost painfully recognisable, and I think it would be so for anyone who's ever been a teenager. I like that everyone has secrets, and nobody's perfect, and people cross the boundaries between good-guy and bad-guy with perfect aplomb; a healthy dose of moral ambiguity is always welcome, especially in myth.

Also there is Shakespeare in it. Did I mention? SHAKESPEARE. Ding ding ding, automatic bonus points.

I'm going to push this on my sister as soon as I can, and I'd recommend it if you're at all into dark urban fantasy; and I'm now sitting around impatiently waiting for Healey's next book to fall into my hands, because I love the way she tells a story.